By John Schwartz
The proposal, a bill regulating the computer software "keys" that unscramble encrypted data, has drawn criticism from businesses and advocates of privacy. "To put a bill like this out indicates that our government is clueless on what to do about security on the Internet," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a high-tech policy group.
Berman and other critics yesterday argued that the bill would make it too easy for the government to get access to private information.
Encryption, used to protect computerized information, has been one of the most contentious battles in the high-tech field for the Clinton administration. Advocates of strong encryption call it a necessity for privacy and security in the digital age. But law enforcement officials have warned that strong encryption will provide a haven for criminals and terrorists to work in secrecy.
When a business or user employs computer software to scramble data or a message, it becomes unreadable to anyone else. Most keys are essentially passwords that authorize the encryption program to reverse the scrambling process.
Opponents expressed the strongest concerns about a provision that would allow law enforcement officials to get access to these keys based on as little as "a written authorization in a form to be specified by the attorney general." By contrast, obtaining permission to conduct a wiretap or a search requires a tougher standard: that law enforcement officials get permission through a court order.
"The government here is apparently trying to give itself a back door" into encrypted communications "with little more than a permission slip," said Matt Raymond, who works for Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who has sponsored one of three bills that promote the use and export of strong encryption.
Victor Parra, president of the Electronic Messaging Association, called the proposal "truly frightening" and said it was out of step with Congress and the business community. "Nobody is proposing with the exception of the administration greater controls" on encryption, Parra said.
William A. Reinsch, who heads the Commerce Department's Bureau of Export Administration, said that the critics were incorrectly characterizing the bill. An early draft had some problems that subsequently were corrected, he said.
The proposal is still flexible, he added. If, for example, the process for keys to be demanded by a simple form is found to weaken current protections against unlawful search and seizure, he said, "then it's deficient and we'll fix it."
The proposal did not expand federal wiretap authority because the key demands could only follow a court-ordered warrant or subpoena. "We're not trying to change anything," he said.
He did say, however, that the administration was working to narrow the scope of the bill so that a demand for keys would not necessarily allow investigators access to all of the secrets of a company or individual, but give them access only to the information necessary to an investigation.
The plan would appear to be at odds with the work of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Officials expect the group today to announce its own guidelines on cryptography after two years of negotiations.
Despite U.S. attempts to get the organization to approve guidelines more consistent with Clinton administration policies, the OECD has decided against a key management plan similar to the administration's proposal.
Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based advocacy group, said that the OECD decision shows "there's a huge difference between what [the Clinton administration] wants to get and where the rest of the world seems to be right now."
Stewart Baker, a former counsel to the National Security Agency working with the government, said that "the U.S. clearly would have been happy to get a stronger endorsement of law enforcement interests" from the OECD, but that "they succeeded much more than the language that will be released tomorrow suggests."
Correspondent Anne Swardson contributed to this report from Paris.